What Does it Take to Become a School Principal?

Dr Denry Machin
Oct 23, 2018 · 7 min read
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“Being a Principal is about more than instructional leadership, pedagogic knowledge and teaching expertise; a Principal is not only a teacher but also Principal of the teachers (a manager)”.

What practices, skills and knowledge do recruiters look for when appointing Principals? If you are applying for a Principal position, what attributes and qualifications will help you stand out?

These questions formed the basis of a review of 100 sets of recruitment documentation (advertisements and job descriptions), interviews with recruitment consultants and an evaluation of Principal’s qualifications.

A summary of the results is presented below.

Student first?

A simple review of word frequency across the 100 recruitment documents is instructive. As the table below shows, educational language features strongly: the most common term, by some margin, was ‘schools’ (2,011 occurrences) and its various derivatives (school, schooling, etc.). The term ‘students’ appeared third most frequently (490 occurrences); Principal appeared sixth (267 occurrences); and curriculum seventh (227 occurrences).

Word Frequency Analysis of Principal Job Advertisement and Job Descriptions

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Typical across the job advertisements/descriptions were requirements such as:

“An outstanding instructional leader, passionate about learning and teaching…”

“Evidence of a passion for learning, a deep abiding respect for the profession of teaching, a genuine caring for students”

Articulated in the sample, the requirements of school leadership are quite rightly focused on pedagogy and student well-being. This focus is, however, to be expected. If the job description for an architect did not include reference to the technical requirements of architecture, it would be more than a little unusual; the same could be said of school Principalship.

The fourth most frequent word in the recruitment documentation was ‘managing’ (427 occurrences). Again, this is unsurprising. Principals are, after all, managers. Many of the references to management tasks related to school/educational administration:

“…maintain effective behaviour management and the health, safety, welfare of students…’

“…management of the school’s boarding provision…’

Principals, then, need to be passionate about pedagogy, but they also need to be able to manage the people and systems necessary to ensure that education is possible.


The documentation also revealed interesting nuance in what Principals are required to manage. Principals need to ‘meticulously interrogate data’, ‘leverage performance’, ‘drive improvement’, ‘correct underperformance’ and meet ‘clients’ needs’. This kind of language was found in just over a quarter (27) of the recruitment documents. In one job description, the managerial influence was particularly prominent:

“Defines ambitious goals and establishes priorities with clear responsibility to drive results; translates school goals into well-defined performance plans for the organisation; designs and manages performance management processes that deliver results far exceeding expectations.”

Amidst the hyperbole, in this example the adjectives ‘drive’ and ‘ambitious’ are strong indicators of an underlying performance narrative. By no means is the argument that these are ignoble aims, indeed, quite the contrary. Who would not wish to focus on pupils’ achievements? Who would not wish to challenge underperformance? However, of concern here is not the (potential) impact on the student but the requirements placed on school leaders — for the Principal successfully recruited to this post, it isn’t enough to (just) put the student first, those students (and their teachers) must be challenged and performance-managed, they must ‘far exceed expectations’.

Marketing Skills

Nearly half of all of the recruitment documentation (46%) required some form of marketing skill. Head’s must:

“…effectively market the school with the aim of recruiting new students and retaining existing students, achieving a full roll and budgeted student numbers.”

“… drive the marketing and admissions process to ensure that pupil numbers are at maximum capacity.”

While these requirements did not feature in all of the documentation, marketing, it seems, is (now) part of a Principal’s role. The recruitment consultants agreed:

“The Principal has to be an active proponent of marketing strategy.”

“Principals are expected to have marketing skills, to be able to advertise their schools, attract parents, present in different forms and talk to various business organisations, bringing students into the school”.

Indicative of how commercialised education has become, the documentation actually included more references to ‘marketing’ and ‘promotion’ (82 incidences combined) than to ‘children’ (75). However, there is comfort to be found for Principal’s whose principles rest in classrooms not boardrooms. The stipulations fell short of detailing marketing tasks, merely necessitating marketing knowledge — requiring the Principal to be a marketing figurehead or requiring oversight of Admissions. In contrast, educational requirements were often much more exacting; detailed knowledge of a particular curriculum, the ability to speak a specific second language, or experience of a distinct country-centric education system being common demands.

Financial Skills

It was highlighted by one of the recruitment consultants that:

“…[Principals] don’t need to be a financial expert but they do have to have a level of understanding. In my previous job [as a Principal], I went to meetings every month and was given financial reports, and I must admit, on a lot of it, I didn’t understand what the hell it was! I think for Principals in for-profit organisations, it’s got to be an important skill”.

That said, the terms ‘Profit and Loss’, ‘Balance Sheet’ and ‘Cashflow’ are entirely absent from the recruitment documentation. Even the word ‘finance’ appeared on only 15% of the documents, and then framed in general terms:

“…the ability to understand the financial side of the school”

“Overseeing the financial soundness of the school”

It seems that being able to talk generally about finance is more prevalent than any specific requirement for financial knowledge. This is not to say that Principals shouldn’t understand finances and that it is not to their advantage to do so, rather that the requirement is for general rather than technical financial knowledge.

Qualification Requirements

The analysis also considered qualifications; in this case, market norms. Of 117 respondents, all serving Principals, 68% held Master’s degrees. If you aspire to Principalship, a Master’s level qualification is clearly advantageous. This was confirmed by one of the recruitment consultants

“It’s essential these days that anybody over the age of 45 can demonstrate active professional development, plus a relevant Master’s or higher degree…”

The full range of responses, including differences in school type (for-profit, not-for-profit and corporately owned) are shown below:

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As the chart shows, Masters of Business Administration (MBA) are held in broadly similar proportions to the more educationally orientated National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) and Principal Training Centre (PTC) qualifications. In other words, for the moment at least, Principals need to prove (through academic qualification) their knowledge of pedagogy but not, or at least not yet, their understanding of profit.

The recruitment consultants, however, offer a different view:

“[My clients] take a pretty typical sort of view that there’s nothing wrong with PGCEs or MAs, but my preference is for candidates who have done appropriate MBA’s.”

“…a lot of leadership courses don’t cover business; perhaps they should. Maybe it isn’t enough to just do an MA in Leadership and Management… if the trend continues for for-profit schools, and you want to get ahead, you’ve got to be business savvy.”

Tellingly, and suggesting that the reality of Principalship may be even more pronounced than the rhetoric of recruitment documentation, the recruiters also pointed out that business requirements do not always appear in job descriptions:

“I’ve heard of Principals being told at interviews that they would have business targets to meet based on the number of children, profit margins etc., but I’ve never, ever seen it in a job advertisement.”

On balance though, whereas the consultants seem to consider business qualifications advantageous, the recruitment documentation required nonesuch.


The data presents a rich, but mixed, and equivocal picture. The specific requirements of Principalship remain aligned to educational skills and practices. There is, however, an emerging sense that Principals do need to understand business (in a loose sense).

Demands for specific business skills were not as common as more educational ones, but it is clear that Principals are required to be managers and that, according to the recruitment consultants, they must have business “acumen”, “awareness” and “savvy” — they must understand, and be comfortable with, marketing and finance.

In relation to qualifications, if you aspire to Principalship, a Master’s degree is a virtual necessity; a Doctorate will set you apart, but isn’t a common requirement. The PTC or NPQH may be useful in practical terms (and useful as differentiators), but they are rarely requirements for appointment.

Evident across the documentation is that Principalship is about more than instructional leadership, pedagogic knowledge and teaching expertise. The requirements make it clear that a Principal is not only a teacher but also the Principal teacher (a manager). This doesn’t mean taking an MBA, it doesn’t mean becoming fluent in the patois of commerce, and it doesn’t mean selling your educational soul; it means developing your CV to match the hybrid recruitments. You must be both practioneer and manager.

Further Reading

For those interested, a 2014 paper by Laura Roberts and Steven Mancuso examines the kind of international school leaders in demand around the world; it offers a similar review of recruitment documentation. The paper can be downloaded here.

My own article on hybrid Headship skills can be accessed here; with the fuller paper here.


on education, by educators, about all things educational

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